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‘Vanguard’: Community turns out for lecture on Black women’s struggle for equality

By Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff | Apr 9, 2021


SHEPHERDSTOWN — Sixty-two community members logged into the Zoom lecture on March 31, featuring Martha Jones, author of “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All.”

The event, hosted by the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education, was co-sponsored by the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Miller Apple Valley Toyota, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, TA Thorton Foundation, Marie Tyler McGraw and the Jefferson County chapter of the League of Women Voters, in memory of former president Ann Coulter.

“We extend our deep appreciation to those who have contributed to this program,” said Byrd Center Interim Director Ray Smock. “We are honored and delighted to have Professor Jones with us this evening.”

After an hour-long lecture on the Black women’s suffrage movement discussed in her book, Jones took time to answer a number of relevant audience questions.

“There is no doubt that it is an extraordinary burden to be of a class of Americans who spent most of this country’s history disenfranchised, excluded, outside of the realm of polling places and elected office — legislatures, executive branches and more. That is the story,” Jones said, of the story in her book. “However, it is also a story about how Black women did not resign themselves to being excluded. Black women learn how to make their way out of no way! They learn to find a way to political power, when they don’t have access to the polls.”

Since Jones’ book was published a couple of years ago, she said it ended without including the development she considers to be one of the greatest accomplishments in the centuries-old struggle for Black women to have political power — Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris’ ability to win the election was, according to Jones, the result of grassroots work by Black women whose successful political tactics had been passed down from their ancestors.

“We’ve just been part of an extraordinary election cycle, where we just saw Black women do work that we haven’t seen being done for 100 years. Black women are still practicing the politics of 1920 with remarkable and consequential effect 100 years later,” Jones said. “So don’t abandon those strategies and tactics!

“Black women have always known you have to get in the trenches for each election cycle,” Jones said. “You can’t do it all through a social media strategy.”

As Jones anticipates the future, she said her knowledge of the history of Black women’s suffrage will continue to inform, not only her writing, but also her life in general.

“What kind of ancestor do you want to be? For me, there’s the kind of historian’s answer, which is that I want to be remembered as someone who wrote the history she needed to read, she needs to know, she needed to learn. Like many of you, this was the history we didn’t learn in school,” Jones said. “The women I write about are such extraordinary inspirations. They take my breath away! They teach us that justice, rights, the righteous — that’s a very long struggle.

“This year, I thought it was important to show up, and bring whatever skills, whatever talent, whatever knowledge to bear,” Jones said, referring to her involvement in supporting Harris’ campaign. “I want my granddaughter to know that I showed up in 2020, when our country was facing a political crossroads.”